The Post

January 8, 2018 at 10:40 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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I’m not sure I have much to say about this polished but predictable film. It files easily in the category of liberal, high-minded, and earnest films about how the press is necessary to keep power in check (think “All the President’s Men” or 2015’s “Spotlight“). The story arc is basically the same: Some powerful people are doing bad things, intrepid reporters/editors become aware of it, against massive opposition they bravely publish the truth (personal consequences be damned). It’s a rousing story and certainly a noble one, especially in light of our current administration’s views on the media and the role the NYTimes played in exposing the Hollywood sex scandal. And this film was well constructed and finely acted. Spielberg has proven himself a master storyteller and this one is no different. It moves along tautly with virtually no wasted space. He makes a story that could seem dull into something gripping. His focus is very intentionally on the courage it took the owner, editor and writers of the Washington Post to move ahead a publish. The actors in each of those roles played them absolutely as well as you would expect from the likes of Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Bradley Whitford, Bob Odenkirk, Carrie Coon, and Michael Stuhlbarg, among others. Streep and Hanks are always easy to watch and their verbal sparring was entertaining. Streep, in particular, can morph into her roles physically and vocally so thoroughly and expresses so much in facial expressions and body language that it’s always a pleasure to watch her performances. All of that is very positive and yet I couldn’t help but feel that I have seen this all before. I’m not sure it shed much light on the need for a free press or on the courage it takes to keep that press free. But maybe we need to hear it all again right now. Maybe, if we can have countless action movies with the exactly same plot, it isn’t the worst thing to tell this important story one more time. I can’t help but feel that, if I had seen this movie before “Spotlight,” it might have gotten a higher rating from me. I don’t know that that is fair, but I am just being honest.

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Call Me by Your Name

January 1, 2018 at 11:46 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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After having just reviewed “Darkest Hour,” I now have to review another film built almost entirely on a single performance. But I feel very differently about the outcome. “Darkest Hour” felt like an exercise in great acting. I enjoyed watching Oldman’s craft, but I was always aware that I was watching acting. In “Call Me by Your Name,” I became lost in Timothée Chalamet’s performance as Elio. Taking place in Italy in 1983, the story covers Elio’s American family, living in Spain because his father is a professor of antiquities. They all speak fluent English, Italian and French, and the film moves back and forth between the three languages fluidly. Seventeen-year-old Elio considers himself a sophisticate, but he is unprepared for the doctoral student who comes to stay with his family for the summer. Elio falls hard for Oliver (Armie Hammer) and a summer romance blossoms. Based on André Aciman’s 2007 novel of the same name, the film wisely tones down the eroticism of the book and focuses instead on the romance. I cannot overstate how taken I was with Chalamet’s performance. He portrays Elio’s adolescent sense of wonder, bravado, lust, goofiness, and insecurity perfectly. Elio tries so hard to seem cool but is deeply uncertain of himself. The script gives Elio a chance to show that insecurity over and over in really beautiful moments and Chalamet is up for the task. For most of the film, we are treated to charming moments of him falling in love against a stunning backdrop. Some of those scenes work better than others but they all give Chalamet an opportunity to utterly charm the audience. Toward the end, the film shifts as summer comes to a close and the story goes where we always knew it had to. This is also where the film became the most effective for me. It was no longer just sweet, it was genuinely heart-wrenching. Michael Stuhlbarg (“The Shape of Water,” “A Serious Man,” Season 3 of “Fargo”) plays Elio’s father. He is kind, wise and far more aware than Elio knows. In his final scene, Stuhlbarg’s monologue is a beautiful piece of writing, acted beautifully. Who doesn’t wish they had that father? And the final scene. Anyone who has read many of my reviews knows I put a lot of weight on the final scene. This is one of my favorites and I will remember it for a long time. It is in those final moments, as the credits roll, that you really understand Chalamet’s acting skill. So much is conveyed in his face and it all feels so real. I don’t know how anyone could portray those emotions so really, without actually experiencing them. I don’t know where inside of himself that young man went (he was only 20 at the time of filming), but I am grateful he was able to go there. What he ended up giving us was deeply touching. This is the difference between a good and a great performance. It felt like Armie Hammer was acting well. It felt like Timothée Chalamet was living it.

Darkest Hour

January 1, 2018 at 11:09 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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I really had no intention of seeing this one. How many films about Churchill can they make? Apparently, as many as they have about Kennedy. However, as the buzz grew for Gary Oldman’s performance, I decided I had to see it. I’m glad I did.  Covering the first month of Churchill’s term as Prime Minister, the story takes us through the agonizing decisions he had to make (including the rescue at Dunkirk) and the intense opposition he faced in his own party. This story would be mildly interesting if it were not for Oldman’s riveting performance. Under mounds of prosthetics, he was still able to capture the full range of emotions of a man who was at turns frustrated, terrified, indignant and exhausted. His body language and vocal tonations reminded me of the transformation Marion Cotillard went through to play Edith Piaf in “La Vie en Rose.” He became the character. The only actor who could even hold my attention in any scene with him was Ben Mendelsohn (“Animal Kingdom,” “Rogue One”) as the king. Otherwise, the film was really almost a one-man show. That said, director Joe Wright (“Atonement,” “Hanna”) gets credit for some clever cinematography. He consistently films Churchill tightly framed, sometimes by small rooms, sometimes by people crowding either side of the screen, sometimes by simply putting him in a small box in the center of the screen surrounded by black. The effect is one of Churchill looking trapped and hemmed in on all side; I found it an effective way to convey how he must have felt. This is a well done film and I suspect Oldman will win the Oscar for his performance. That said, the story is engaging enough but it was never brilliant or revelatory. Compare it to “Dunkirk” and one quickly understands the difference a strong story can make. That was a film that was about the events, rather than about the characters. It did not rely on any one actor to carry it. The film carried itself. You remove Oldman and there wouldn’t be that much to recommend here.

The Shape of Water

December 24, 2017 at 11:22 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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Not since “Pan’s Labyrinth” has Guillermo del Toro created such a visual feast. From the first moments of the film to the final scene, there was never a moment when I wasn’t enrapt by what I was seeing. Del Toro creates a magical early 60s world awash in shades of green. The wallpaper, carpet, cars, clothing, candies, were all various shades of green, giving us a sense of being underwater, with the occasional shock of red to remind us of the burning emotions and potential violence that was lurking in these murky waters. The fantastic Sally Hawkins plays a mute janitor who works alongside Octavia Spencer in a secret government lab that is clearly up to no good. Michael Shannon, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Nick Searcy all play government agents who are varying levels of evil. When a strange amphibian man is captured in South America and brought to the lab, Hawkin’s Elisa has pity for him and they form a bond. This film is part sci-fi, comedy, love story, and allegory. And it works on every one of those levels. It is very funny, though much of the humor is sly commentary. For everything there is to laud about this film, Hawkin’s acting may be the biggest thing. Without ever saying a word, she gave us access to her entire internal world and the deep emotions she was feeling. Visually and emotionally complex, this really was a fantastic, fantastic film and one of my favorites of the year.

 

Mudbound

December 20, 2017 at 1:33 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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If you’ve never heard of this film, you’re not alone. It was released first on Netflix and has only had a very small theatrical release, just so it would be eligible for awards season. The story was based on a novel by Hillary Jordan and directed by Dee Rees, whose only other feature length film thus far is the stunning “Pariah” from 2011 (see my review here). This story takes place in 1940s Mississippi, as two poor families (one White and the other Black) attempt to keep their farms afloat. Both send young men off to war and then have to deal with the consequences of how they have changed when they return. The plot is not overly complex, nor are there any twists; it unfolds pretty much as you suspect it might. The real treat is the fantastic acting from everyone involved, but especially from Jason Mitchell and Garrett Hedlund as the two young men who strike up a friendship, based upon shared experiences, once they return. Mitchell is particularly powerful as a young man barely containing his pride and anger. In addition, Rob Morgan and Mary J. Blige as his parents masterfully play characters who have had a lifetime of swallowing their rage. Nobody in this film is happy. They are all bitter, angry and disappointed. It’s just that the White people feel entitled to make sure everyone knows it. The film gets difficult to watch in parts and has one particularly disturbing scene near the end. I’m not sure I could recommend this film based on its story, which feels largely predictable and ends on a note that felt forced, given the rest of the film’s tone. That said, if you love great acting, I would see it just to watch Mitchell, Morgan, Blige, Hedlund, Jason Clarke, Carey Mulligan, and Jonathan Banks. They collectively breathe life into every single scene.

 

Patti Cake$

December 8, 2017 at 4:30 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ½

This raw, and sometimes rough, little film is one of the best I’ve seen this year. The story focuses on the eponymous Patti, a teenage girl living in New Jersey who has a talent for poetry and fantasy. She dreams of being a big rap artist but spends most of her time stuck in the doldrums of her day-to-day life. When she and her best friend Jheri meet the introverted Basterd, everything seems to be coming together for her. Told against a gritty, working class backdrop, Patti’s story feels vibrant; she seems ready to explode into technicolor life against the dull grey background of her world. That tension gives the film real energy. But what really makes this a movie to watch is the powerful performances of the two lead women: Danielle Macdonald as Patti and Bridget Everett as her mother. In my ideal world, Everett would be nominated for an Oscar. She was incredibly powerful every moment on screen. Hers was maybe the most vulnerable and emotionally charged acting I saw all year. Macdonald is also a fantastic young actress. She moved to the US from Australia a few years ago and has been doing bit parts until now, but this role seems to have broken her through; she’s in five films next year. The relationship between Patti and her mother is wonderfully complex and utterly believable. Looking at Barb, the audience understands exactly who Patti is. The film leads us to a somewhat predictable ending, but it is a deeply satisfying one, none-the-less. Loud, funny, touching and rousing; from start to finish, this was a film to revel in.

Miss Sloane

November 22, 2017 at 7:59 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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“Miss Sloane” was an early 2017 film, released in February this year, but I just saw it on a long flight, so thought I would review it. Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain) is a big star at a powerful DC lobbying firm. The film dives deep into the heart of the gun control debate and definitely takes a side. We watch Sloane as she tries to out-maneuver her opponents around a bill that would impose background checks. Not unlike 2011’s “Ides of March,” this film suggests the machinations of a very corrupt political system. I doubt these stories are too far from the truth, but both run the risk of losing their impact as they become increasingly more extreme. “Miss Sloane” has some good twists and turns and was quite fun to watch, like a chess match between pros. Chastain has the screen presence needed to play this character with the proper gravitas, especially when facing off against actors like Sam Waterston, John Lithgow, and Mark Strong. Strong, in particular, was effective in his role as the incredulous boss shocked by how far Sloane was willing to go. Several times, his facial expressions conveyed the perfect amount of shock, fear, awe and distrust. The other stand out performance belongs to Gugu Mbatha-Raw. Her Esme was the real soul and conscience of the movie; it is through her that the audience is supposed to ask, “when do the ends no longer justify the means?” When this film was at it’s best, it was insightful and poignant and raised interested ethical questions for me to chew on. In the end, however, it settled for a very Hollywood finish. It was certainly fun to watch and felt satisfying, but it also felt a bit empty and disconnected from any larger message the film was trying to make. Probably, that doesn’t really matter. I don’t think I need Hollywood to be my conscience. That said, my favorite films tend to do more than entertain me; they leave me a little uncomfortable.

Lady Bird

November 19, 2017 at 7:29 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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Almost to the day a year ago, I saw a film very similar to this one. That film, “The Edge of Seventeen,” was a real delight, full of honesty and insight. “Lady Bird” made me feel very much the same way. The film is written and directed by Greta Gerwig, who has acted in “20th Century Women,” “Francis Ha,” and “Jackie,” among others. Gerwig’s film is set in 2002 and focuses on a 17 year-old girl’s last year of high school. Gerwig herself would have been 19 in 2002 and so much of the film felt so real that I wonder if she was writing from her own experience. Lady Bird, played beautifully by Saoirse Ronan, feels like a fish out of water. She believes she is too clever for the everyday life she has to put up with. Meanwhile, her overly anxious mother (Laurie Metcalf of “Roseanne” fame) stumbles over how to communicate with her daughter. This world is also occupied with a host of others: kindly father, nerdy best friend, cruel & shallow cute boy, etc. But the real focus of the film is this mother/daughter relationship. Fortunately, both Ronan and Metcalf are excellent actors. They create deeply sympathetic, flawed and funny characters. The end result is a story that feels utterly believable. The kids all act and think just like kids. This relationship between parent and child felt as frustrating and as powerful as a real relationship. This was a simple story about a critical moment in a girl’s life; she’s struggling with what it means to become a woman and to face an uncertain future. There were no shocking twists or garish surprises. Just a regular girl trying to figure out her life out. I found that struggle to be funny, insightful and touching.

God’s Own Country

November 12, 2017 at 4:51 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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I must confess that, by the end of the 1990’s, I felt like I had seen my share of young-men-falling-in-love films. Most of them follow a formula that I have gotten pretty used to. So, I wouldn’t have bothered with this one if a friend had not wanted to see it. I’m glad he did. Set in Northern England, the film follows Johnny (Josh O’Connor) as he tries to tend to his parents’ farm. His father has had a stroke and Johnny must do most of the work by himself. He’s depressed and sullen and drinks way too much. His parents hire Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), a farmhand from Romania, who Johnny initially resents but slowly grows attached to. Both men play their emotional cards very close to the chest. In fact, nobody hardly says much of anything in this film; these men make Ennis and Jack from “Brokeback Mountain” seem verbose. Which may be for the better as, when Johnny does speak, I can hardly understand a word of what he is saying. In fact, the Romanian was the easiest person to understand in the entire film. This is a slow moving film and I was slow to warm up to it. I had a hard time connecting to the characters early on, partly because of my difficulty understanding the dialogue. And the sex that did occur seemed rough, uncaring and cold. But the film really grew on me. Johnny’s entire world was rough and cold. As his relationship with Gheorghe developed, he also developed as a character. By the end of the film, and particularly in it’s last act, I was genuinely moved. There was some fantastic acting here, particularly when these rough men were trying to share complicated feelings. It made every fleeting moment of intimacy feel well earned. In particular, I was impressed with Ian Hart (“Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”) as Johnny’s father. He was terrific as a man who was never comfortable with his emotions and was now even more restricted by his stroke. I thought his last scene with Johnny was fantastic. Under the surface, these people have deep passion and need. Because it is so contained throughout the film, even the slightest signs of it feel deeply rewarding. There is a tough, cold, brutality on the surface of this film. You can see it in the harsh lighting, the frozen landscape, the lives and deaths of the animals, the looks on people’s faces. But, stick with it long enough, and you will also discover real warmth, humor, tenderness and even love. The film will make you work for those emotions but, when they show up, you’ll be glad you waited.

Victoria & Abdul

November 5, 2017 at 5:43 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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◊ ½

1887, for her 50th year on the throne, Queen Victoria asked for two servants to be sent from India to serve her during her Silver Jubilee celebration. One of them, Abdul Karim, became her confidante and closest friend for the last decade of her life. After her death, the royal family was so scandalized by the relationship that they tried to wipe all evidence of it from the historical record. Thus it remained for 100 years until a scholar visiting a remote estate belonging to the royal family, came across a painting and bust of him. She did research that lead her to a still intact journal of Victoria’s written in Urdu (still intact because nobody in the royal estate knew what it said) and, eventually, to Karim’s own journals that had been kept by his last living relative in India. That scholar, Shrabani Basu, wrote the book that this movie is based on. Its a touching story about how alienating power can be and of how, even a queen, just wants to be treated like a person. Director Stephen Frears (“Dangerous Liaisons,” “High Fidelity,” “The Queen,” “Philomena”) takes every scrap of information he has to work with and gets it into the film somehow. The problem is that the information we have on their relationship is scarce. It is based largely on Karim’s journals and a few snippets of Victoria’s writing. The end result is a very unbalanced portrayal of Karim as an almost heroic figure and the royal household as a collection of bigoted, jealous fools. That may have been the case but it makes for a rather boring film, without much depth of character. Some complexities in Karim’s character are hinted at, like the possibility he was a chronic liar, but they were never explored. He was allowed to remain a sort of savior figure throughout the film. The end result was a story that was more melodrama than drama. It was hard for me to feel any connection to these characters because I kept second guessing how real they were. It’s a shame because there is an interesting story there about class, race, duty, faith, love and many other complex things. I just wish this film had gone a little deeper than the shiny surface we got to see.

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